Sunday, March 13, 2011

2011: A Lenten Odyssey, Week One

I figure if I document and share some of the ways we're observing Lent, we might be inspired to make the most of it. So here's the first (and I hope not the last) installment of what I'll call, "2011: A Lenten Odyssey."

On the Monday before Ash Wednesday, I gave the third graders in my CCD class a calendar with a cross to color in for every day of Lent, and instructed them to color in the crosses certain colors based on what kind of Lenten observation they did that day. (Like if they said an extra prayer they would color it yellow; if they gave something up that they like they color it green or whatever). We have 34 days of Lent before Religious Education goes on hiatus for Easter; I told them if they brought back the calendar on that last day with 30 crosses filled in, they would get a prize. Although, now I'm wondering if 30 is too much to ask; what do you think?

On Monday and Tuesday at preschool, we had the kids decorate a strip of construction paper and then glue it onto an empty play-dough container. We cut holes in the top and explained that they were for collecting coins for the needy. If they do an extra chore at home or say extra prayers, Mommy or Daddy would put a coin in the bank. Before Easter they'll bring back their full coin banks and we'll combine the money collected for a worthy cause.

ASH WEDNESDAY: The boys' school planned their Ash Wednesday Mass for 10 am, and I decided instead to attend the one at church (scheduled for 9:30 am) so I could get a little housecleaning done before work. As it turned out, the time had been printed wrong in the church bulletin, and when I got there (after parking on a side street because the parking lot was jam-packed) I learned from others who had arrived around the same time I did that Mass had started at 9, and that Eucharistic Prayers had already started. I headed home, hoping to catch one of the evening Masses, and got a little more housework done than I had planned. My traditional Ash Wednesday "light brunch" consisted of a gluten-free cereal bar, some mixed nuts, and a glass and a half of milk.

At preschool, Father L. came by to distribute ashes to the children. We were afraid that some of the kids would be fearful and reluctant to receive the cross, but they all thought it was great. Father L. explained that these were special ashes made from burned palm fronds, and they were blessed and that the cross that he would make on their foreheads was a very special blessing. They all got a kick out of looking at their crosses in the mirror, and one little boy said that my cross looked like a tattoo! After receiving the ashes, we heard one little voice call out, "Thank You, God!"

Traditional Mid-afternoon Ash Wednesday Lunch: Frozen gluten-free cheese enchiladas and applesauce.

Dinner: A Tuna dish with rice, courtesy of Rachael Ray (only a small amount for me, even though I wanted more) I was so glad to find this quick and easy one-pot meal; I managed to whip it up real quick before I started schlepping everyone hither and yon. (Here's the recipe if you're interested. It was quite good, and since I'm gluten-free these days, I served it over rice instead of pasta.) I decided that as a small Lenten sacrifice I would not automatically turn on the kitchen TV like I usually do; it's amazing how much more quickly the food preparation and cleanup can go without the boob tube to distract me. I never did make it to Mass, though. If only it were a Holy Day of Obligation, maybe I would have.

I don't know about you, but when Ash Wednesday is over, I always look forward to eating regular-sized portions and snacks in between meals! And I promise that from now on I won't document everything I eat--at least, not until Good Friday when we have to fast again...

On Thursday I read Eric Carle's The Tiny Seed to the preschool children. It's the story of a little seed that's blown away by the wind with other seeds that are bigger than it is. The other seeds get blown out to sea, eaten, trampled on, and when the seeds that survive finally start to grow, all the other seeds grow quickly into beautiful flowers, while the tiny seed is still only a little plant. The other flowers get crushed by children's feet and picked, but the little flower grows into a giant flower even taller than a house. Pretty soon it produces its own seeds that are blown away by the wind. I explained to the children that we are like little seeds--God made us and we're growing and pretty soon we'll be grown up. We are learning and growing in God's love, and he is shaping us into beautiful flowers. We handed out the coin banks they had made, and I asked each child to tell what they would do to help Mommy or Daddy so they could put money in their banks. I then gave them each three pennies to get them started. Some of the kids still had the idea that the money was for them, and one even excitedly told me what cool toy he would buy for himself. I explained again that we would put all of the money together and buy clothes or food or toys for little children who had none.

Thursday afternoon was one of the highlights of my week, because I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, the survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the author of several books, including Left to Tell and Our Lady of Kibeho. She recounted her memories of the plane crash that killed the president of Rwanda and triggered the horrific genocide; the last memories of her parents and her brothers, the fear and anger she felt hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women, listening to men searching the house for Tutsis who might be hiding there. She talked about how she prayed the Rosary to pass the time, and how peace began to take over in her heart. The more she prayed the more peace and the less anger she felt; and ultimately her prayers gave her the strength to forgive those who murdered the people she loved.

(During her talk she kept pulling out this Rosary. I asked her if it was the exact Rosary she prayed while she was in hiding, and she said no, it was not this one.)

I spent way too much money on books, but it was worth it. I bought a beautiful Our Lady of Sorrows Rosary (which I STILL haven't prayed), and when I handed her my books for her to sign, she smiled warmly at me. She is a bit like a rock star, and I was a little nervous about meeting her; I told her that I had read Left to Tell and Our Lady of Kibeho, and that I was looking forward to reading her second book, Led By Faith. She said, "You really should come to Rwanda with us! It's beautiful there, and we have pilgrimages to Kibeho!" I said I would LOVE to come. She grasped my hand in both of hers, and as I walked out into the rain, shoving the newly signed books under my coat so they wouldn't get wet, I was grinning like a crazy woman.

She looks like a supermodel, don't you think? Check out Immaculee's website and Facebook fan page!

Thursday evening my parents arrived at our house (spending time with Mom and Dad was the other highlight of my week!) because the kids were off from school on Friday and I had a workshop to attend for the diocesan preschool teachers. I gave my mother the signed copy of Left to Tell, and that evening we watched videos of Immaculee that I had found on the Internet. Perhaps Mom and I can go to Kibeho together one day.

Over the weekend we only observed a few little Lenten practices: when my parents took the boys out to a pizza buffet restaurant, they made sure they chose meat-free pizza; and instead of our usual Friday night pepperoni and sausage pizzas, we ordered meat-free food instead. On Saturday we talked over dinner about what we were each sacrificing for Lent, but unfortunately we still haven't come up with something specific for us to do together. The weekend was full of the usual homework, chores, flag football games, play practice, and the like. We watched the horrifying pictures coming out of Japan, and prayed for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. This coming week promises to be a busy one, and I hope we can all take the time to remember what Lent is all about amidst all of our hustle and bustle and St. Patrick's Day and school activities and tae kwon do and homework and things...

Dear Jesus, give us the courage to give until it hurts this Lent. Help us to remember that You love us enough to suffer and die for us, and give us the grace to suffer for others.

(Click here for more incredible photos of the destruction in Japan.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Get Thee To The Church: St. Leo the Great, Winston-Salem, North Carolina (and some thoughts regarding our Mormon friends, too)

We've attended Mass at St. Leo the Great a number of times; it's where we usually come when we visit family here. (Except for the time a couple of years ago when yours truly made a hotel reservation through a popular online hotel reservation service by calling them and specifically asking for a certain hotel at such-and-such address that was less than five minutes away from Aunt A's house, and they booked us at a seedy place in a not-so-nice neighborhood across town that was TWENTY minutes away from Aunt A's house. We went to a different church that Sunday. But I digress.)

If you regularly read this blog, you may already know that I traveled to North Carolina by myself back in January to attend the funeral of my cousin Greg, who died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve at age 53. (Click here to read what I posted soon after that trip.) St. Leo is the closest church to Aunt A's house and to my hotel--and by the way, this time around I called the hotel directly. I did NOT want to be stuck in some run-down place a half hour away all by myself! I had a long drive home on Sunday, so I got up early for the 7 am Mass. I arrived a few minutes early, and asked one of the ushers if I could take some photos, and he was more than happy to let me.

It was still dark outside before Mass. Afterward the sun had risen and the stained-glass windows looked beautiful with light shining through them. I wish I had snapped another photo.

Did you know that Pope Leo I was the earliest Pope to be called The Great, and the earliest Saint to be declared Doctor of the Church? It seems there were some popular heresies floating around in his day, (including one that denied the affects of original sin), and he worked hard to correct these. He's the one who officially declared the doctrine of the Incarnation. Read more about Leo the Great here and here.

After Mass I had TWO breakfasts: I met my brother and sister-in-law back at the hotel (Wasn't I smart? I booked a room at the same place they were staying, just down the hall from them) and we had one last visit together before they had to hit the road, and then I went over to Aunt A's house and breakfasted again with her and the many people who were staying with her--my parents, my Uncle D. and Aunt E, and several cousins who stayed nearby and came in to say hello.


I didn't want to end this post without sharing a few thoughts about the church where Greg's funeral was held. Greg's wife T. is Mormon, and sometime after they married he converted to Mormonism. Greg and T. raised their four boys in the Mormon church. (If you're a member of Greg's family and are reading this, please hear me out! I don't in any way want to criticize you for your Mormon faith, or belittle the church you know and love. I know how important your faith is to you.) When we arrived for the funeral, we were directed to a room where other family members were gathering, and I looked around and saw that there were paintings depicting Jesus at various times in his life: here was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, there was the angel Gabriel addressing Mary; a couple of images were portraits of Christ. They reminded me of some of the posters our Sunday School teachers used to show us growing up in our Baptist church. In the hallways were many other paintings--the resurrected Christ addressing the eleven disciples, Jesus preaching to the crowds, and many others. Inside the church itself (I'm not sure what they call it in the Mormon Church; Worship Space? Sancuary?) there were no pictures or decorations to speak of, except for the flowers and the photos of Greg that were on display for the funeral.

The service was moving; many people spoke about Greg and how much they would miss him, my Dad sang a beautiful solo, and there were many hymns sung, some of which I'd heard and others I hadn't. There were a couple of things mentioned that made me want to stand up and say, "Wait a second, you've got that all wrong! We weren't living in Heaven with God before we were born, and sent here to Earth to be tested. He created each of us individually at the moment we were conceived!" and "No, we don't continue to grow in faith and virtue when we get to Heaven, and work our way to greater glory. When we reach Heaven we're already attained the greatest glory with God!" (I'm neither a Catholic or a Mormon scholar, so feel free to comment here and RESPECTFULLY clarify if you feel inclined.) I was reminded that many Mormon teachings are in sharp disagreement with Catholic doctrine. I was also reminded that despite our differences, Mormons and Catholics and other Christians share many beliefs: We all believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that He suffered and died for our sins, and rose from the dead so that we could be with Him forever in Heaven. We all love our families and raise our children to be active participants in the Kingdom of God. We all pray, and put our faith and trust in the mercy of God. I wish everyone who seeks Christian unity would remember the things we all have in common, rather than condemning each other for beliefs and practices we don't agree with. We can talk to each other about our differences, and point out truths to those who are in error, but let's be respectful of each other and the beliefs that we hold dear.

As we were leaving the church, I noticed a painting in the hallway that looked a little bit like this one:

(image source)

I jokingly asked my Baptist brother and sister-in-law, "I wonder what book of the Bible THAT one is from?" Of course, I immediately regretted having said it, because we as Catholics display statues and images of saints and important events in Church history that we don't find in the Bible. The hardships and struggles of the early Mormon people are an integral part of their history, just as the hardships and struggles of the Church fathers and all the saints are an important part of ours.

Pass me another slice of humble pie, please.
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